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On The String: How Folk Rocker Amythyst Kiah Was Inspired By History

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Grand Ole Opry, photo by Chris Hollo
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East Tennessee songwriter Amythyst Kiah owned Nashville this week, celebrating her Rounder Records debut Wary + Strange with performances on Lightning 100’s 3rd & Lindsley Sunday night broadcast, at City Winery on Monday over WMOT with her colleague Allison Russell, and Tuesday night, a debut at the Grand Ole Opry. It’s a good thing she didn’t bail on her career path five years ago, as she considered.

“There were two winters where I was using my credit card to buy groceries, and I was like, I'm going to try this for one more year,” she says in Episode 174 of The String. “And if this doesn't work, then I'm gonna have to do something else. 2016 was the last year I was gonna give full time music a try. That's when I got the call from Rhiannon’s agent (with) the opportunity to open for her on tour.”

She’s referencing Rhiannon Giddens, founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, new icon of American folk and an architect of the revival of Black Americana music. A couple of years after that first tour, Giddens then invited Kiah to be part of a songwriting retreat in Louisiana with two other rising black women of roots. “Bring your banjos,” became the witty shorthand for the mission, which was an unmediated, private conversation about history, racism, aspiration, storytelling and song. The result was the acclaimed Smithsonian Folkways album Songs of Our Native Daughters, and the acoustic quartet of the same name, rounded out with Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla. 

Out of that experience, Kiah contributed the album's most impactful song, a career-changer for her, "Black Myself." The foot-stomping anthem rockets through time from the African slave trade through legal and social segregation to today’s revival of black power and racial reckoning. It earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best American Roots Song and Song of the Year at the 2019 Folk Alliance International Awards. The quartet opened the 2019 Americana Honors & Awards at the Ryman with the song in a magisterial, unforgettable moment.

Amythyst Kiah and her Native Daughters collaborators give us an answer to a question many in roots music posed and struggled with for years, which is what a true renaissance of African American influence and artistry would look like in the overwhelmingly white ecosystem of Americana music? Unlike country music, where gates are all but rusted shut to the advancement of careers by people of color and women with meaningful songs and fresh points of view, Americana has been peopled with artists and executives not only open but eager to see and support more diverse artistry. But as Kiah says, there were decades when young black artists had little interest in or recognition of the string band or traditional blues traditions. It would take participation to create the representation. And she set out to do just that a decade ago. 

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Our conversation on The String comes with some bonus tape that lets us hear from that younger artist. In 2010, I produced a video profile of the East Tennessee State University degree program in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music. And that’s how I met Amythyst, who at 22 years old was then about to wrap up her degree and set out as a solo acoustic folk troubadour. In our interview she addressed the situation with clarity and prescience. 

“Really, this music is a multicultural situation,” she said then, noting the history she read in school that put the music of enslaved Africans at the very foundation of American popular music. “I knew I felt something with this music. But, you know, because you don't see that reflected in history very often, it's just not really talked about as much.” Minstrelsy in the 19th and early 20th centuries and exploitation in the record business of the 20s and 30s estranged black musicians from the wider string band tradition that fed into bluegrass and modern roots. Her schooling and her participation helped her reconcile all that, she says. “America is just this big blend of traditions and music. And I feel like I'm a part of it. And even if I go to a place where I don't see a black face, anywhere, it doesn't bother me, because I know I belong there.”

Rhiannon Giddens was granted the first Legacy of Americana Award in 2019 for stimulating exactly this counter-trend and for purposefully using her influence in the music industry to mentor and support artists like the Native Daughters, even as other young powerful black voices have surged: Yola, Sunny War, Joy Oladokun, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jake Blount and others. It’s an overdue and welcome movement, and Kiah is in the right spot to represent Americana music to the world as the blues based, all-American mega-genre that it needs to be.

That said, Kiah has taken a journey through her various musical points of view. After graduating from ETSU, she took on the role of a solo folk troubadour, playing guitar and banjo and performing old canonical songs at least as much as she performed original songwriting. She reminded me in her early performing days of a young Odetta, with her low, limpid voice, and even Nina Simone in her authoritative stance on stage. Kiah’s sense of belonging was manifest in the way she addressed the audience, and even as she developed her voice, playing a circuit around Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, there was a sense that she knew where she was going. 

In the studio, she tried several directions, releasing a minimalist folk album in 2013 featuring her signature covers of standards like “Darlin’ Corey” and “Dark Holler.” On her seven-song 2017 project Amythyst Kiah and her Chest Of Glass (also her band name), she continued to mine the folk cannon with arrangements that tapped the indie rock interests of her years growing up in the suburban enclaves of Chattanooga TN.

Then she attracted the interest of Rounder Records (which also released her colleague Allison Russell’s extraordinary Outside Child a few weeks ago) and here on Wary + Strange, Kiah has been able to forge a personal, contemporary expression around songs she wrote herself. Her language is creative and angular, her sonic textures and fierce grooves built in tandem with producer Tony Berg. In a sweet spot between plainspoken folk and stylized rock and roll, Kiah sings about the overcrowded punditocracy and judgement culture on “Soapbox,” about her mother’s suicide in “Wild Turkey” and about finding her own inner security in the incredible “Firewater.” And she re-tools "Black Myself" into a punching, emotional roots rock track for the ages. To hear from Kiah in conversation and in song about working through her anxieties and finding her place in modern American art is a study in resilience and the power of community, with much more to come. 

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